Agri-Tech Week: Agriculture showcase is right on cue
Regenerative agriculture was top of the bill at this year’s Agri-Tech Week 2020, as the farming sector identifies the opportunities in the new Agriculture Bill, which became law on November 11.
The new bill looks to reward farmers for ‘public goods’ created through good land management. This includes better air and water quality, thriving wildlife, soil health, and measures to reduce flooding.
The virtual event on November 9-13 included the flagship REAP (Realising Economic Agricultural Potential) conference, which features the REAP 2020 Start-Up Showcase.
Highlights included Xampla, the Cambridge-based innovator which has replaced micro-plastics in washing detergents and shampoo with edible pea protein. Founder Simon Hombersley described “a very well-run event” and “a nice opportunity to get to know the agri-tech scene in our part of the world a little more”.
Another Cambridge participant was Antobot, whose technology offers twice the ‘brain’ power of commercially available mobile robots in a third of the size.
Founder Howard Wu said: “Our first commercial product will be a highly compact four-wheel-drive scouting robot capable of counting fruits and determining fruit ripeness and size, while also mapping fruiting locations in three dimensions to allow picking at a later stage.
“Small ground-based machines are able to fit into narrow spaces between plants to map fruit location in detail, and being light also prevents soil compaction. But the challenge of building very small robots is the requirement for a smaller control unit.
“Our universal Robot Control Unit - uRCU - achieves twice as much ‘brain’ power as the current market leading mobile robot company, despite being just 1/3rd the size,” adds Wu. “We also offer our uRCU to other robotics companies, to accelerate their robotics application development.”
Cambridge-based Howard, whose Antobot colleague Dr Ke Lu is based in Shanghai, says reports of a 30 per cent shortfall of filling labour vacancies in the UK have also been evidenced in China.
“In China, we are talking with farmers in two major provinces to understand their needs. As salaries increase, and more and more young people transition away from rural living, alternative means of agricultural labour will be required and there is very good appetite for agricultural robotics.
“Antobot’s response is to create a more affordable solution for the farmer, by automating some of the labour-intensive manual processes.”
Other companies at REAP included PheroSyn, whose pheromone midge trap reduces need for spraying; and Mantle Labs, whose Geobotanics crop monitoring platform ‘sees through clouds’ to increase the efficacy of satellite imaging.
Then there’s BeeSecure, improving bee health by listening in to their conversations, translating the vibrations to provide early alerts, ensuring that the bees are happy, healthy and performing well. Roberto Pasi, co-founder of Italian-based BeeSecure, says the company “can understand ten main ‘conversation’ topics, quickly identifying issues”. Work has just started with beekeeper associations and farmers in the UK.
Plymouth-based Willand Group’s climate-controlled farm-sized inflatable structures for meat production optimise the environment to - among other things - reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Daniel Larn, the group’s managing director, said: “Happy animals are the most productive, and we saw the opportunity for a climate-controlled environment that would offer the animals space and protection from pests and harsh conditions, which would standardise conditions and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
The Willand Intelligent Livestock System (WIL System) – resembling the inflatable structures used for many years to provide undercover sports facilities – can be installed and fitted-out within weeks and offers the potential for methane and carbon capture to enable the industry to meet its Net Zero targets profitably.
Agri-TechE director, Dr Belinda Clarke, said: “Essentially, we had the biggest REAP ever in terms of number of delegates, number of exhibitors, and number of international participants.
“The qualitative feedback has been amazing – the fact that we were able to go ‘virtual’ with such a short lead time, when many other conferences have been unable to go ahead, has really been noted.”